Sentence for theft is humiliation in Bedford town center
November 4, 2009 5:00 AM
Bedford County District Attorney/Associated Press
In this photo provided by the Bedford County district attorney's office, Evelyn Border holds a sign in front of the county courthouse yesterday.
By Jon Schmitz and Torsten Ove Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BEDFORD -- Land surveyor Lee Geisler was researching old property records not long ago when he spotted a criminal record from Fulton County in the 1890s. A man was sentenced to three days in the stocks and a public lashing for marital infidelity.
Yesterday, Mr. Geisler saw what he regarded as the modern-day equivalent: two women in this town's historic courthouse square, holding signs that read: "I stole from a 9-year-old on her birthday. Don't steal or this could happen to you."
Tina Griekspoor and her mother, Evelyn Border, agreed to stand with the signs for 4 1/2 hours to avoid jail time for what Bedford County prosecutors called theft and what the defendants contended was mostly an innocent mistake.
The two used gift cards that they found in a Walmart store after the child misplaced them.
"I'm just standing out here being humiliated in front of people," Ms. Griekspoor said, standing at the corner of Juliana and Penn streets as a cold wind flogged her.
"I admit we did make a mistake," said her mother, across the street.
Both agreed to the penance to avoid jail time for theft of lost property.
"I'm not in the financial situation to fight it," said Ms. Griekspoor, 35, a food service worker. "I have a family I'm supporting. My husband is laid off."
Ms. Border, 56, said she found the gift cards on a box at the store in April. One was for $50, the other for $30. She said her first impulse was to turn them in.
But prosecutors said the two used the cards to purchase items and told a store clerk, who had been alerted to the lost cards, that the cards were theirs.
This was in spite of the fact that the girl's name was on the cards, said Assistant District Attorney Travis W. Livengood, who suggested the punishment. Mr. Livengood said the two suspects also returned to the store and tried to use the cards a second time.
"Such shameful conduct deserves to be met by equally shameful punishment," he said.
Mr. Geisler, a Harrisburg resident who was in Bedford on business yesterday, agreed.
"This has a deterrent effect on other people. I actually think it's very valuable," he said.
Another bystander begged to differ. "This is awful. This is stupid. What are we supposed to do here? Give her hell? Change the name of Bedford to Salemville?" asked the man, who identified himself only as Jerry of Crystal Springs.
Bedford County District Attorney Bill Higgins plans to seek similar contrition from other suspects in what he calls the "Public Punishment Initiative."
"Be it a sign around a thief's neck, a public apology in the town square from a domestic abuser to their spouse, or cleaning out the animal cages at the Humane Society once a week, it is time that the blame and shame be focused exactly where it should be -- upon the criminal," Mr. Livengood said.
Public shame as punishment dates to the days of the Old Testament, and it was popular during Colonial times in America before falling out of favor with the advent of the modern legal system.
But in the 1990s, shame began making a comeback as some judges and prosecutors sought alternative ways to punish offenders and relieve jail overcrowding.
In Boston, men convicted of soliciting prostitutes were forced to sweep the streets in Chinatown. A New Hampshire child molester was forced to take out ads confessing his crimes and encouraging other molesters to seek treatment. A mail thief in San Francisco was sentenced to appear outside the post office wearing a sign that said, "I stole mail. This is my punishment."
One of the leading proponents of this "Scarlet Letter" approach was Judge Ted Poe, a Houston jurist and now a member of Congress from Texas. During his time on the bench, Judge Poe sentenced shoplifters to carry signs in front of the stores they robbed and made sex offenders post signs on their doors warning children to stay away.
"I'm telling you, a little shame can go a long way," Judge Poe told The Boston Globe in 1997. "Some folks say everyone should have high self-esteem, but that's not the real world. Sometimes people should feel bad."
Mr. Livengood heard Mr. Poe advocate shame sentences at a district attorneys' conference at Station Square over the summer.
"He's sort of the modern father of this kind of stuff," Mr. Livengood said. "So we thought we'd give it a try."
The public defender's office, representing the two women, agreed to the punishment as part of a plea bargain. They will plead guilty and Mr. Livengood will recommend probation.
"These are ladies who are not familiar with the criminal justice system," said Anthony Zanoni, their lawyer. The prospect of jail time "scares the hell out of them."
In addition to the stares of passers-by, Ms. Griekspoor dealt with a steady stream of reporters yesterday, giving at least eight interviews during her stay on the corner.
"I've never, ever been in trouble," she said. "This is very sad. But what about the thousands and thousands of things that [other] people have done? What about the people who molest children? What about the people with DUIs? I'm embarrassed. But everyone in Bedford County knows what kind of person I am."
Both women said they had learned from their mistake.
"I won't pick up nothing, not even a penny," said Ms. Border. "They used to have the old saying 'finders keepers.' That doesn't go anymore."